By Chuck Strouse
By Scott Fishman
By Terrence McCoy
By Ryan Yousefi
By Ciara LaVelle, Kat Bein, Carolina Del Busto, and Liz Tracy
By Pepe Billete
By Ryan Yousefi
By Kyle Swenson
"If this were a scheme to jack up the price of this thing," says one law-enforcement source familiar with the case, "and then to move the money from a charity to private people and split it among themselves, then you've got a problem. Because ultimately at the end of the day this money is taxpayer money."
Federal and state criminal investigators are now trying to find out exactly who ended up with that $252,000. About $109,000 is unaccounted for. In Florida grand theft of over $100,000 is a first-degree felony punishable by up to 30 years in prison. People convicted of stealing $5000 to $100,000 can spend a maximum of fifteen years in jail.
Siskind has declined to say how much money from the Divine Mission deal went to him. In August he told the Miami Heraldthat some of what he did receive was to reimburse him for plumbing, electrical, and carpentry work on the building before it was sold. But there is evidence Siskind received between $20,000 and $30,000 in taxpayer money from the sale, says the law-enforcement source. New Timesasked Siskind to explain his payoff from the sale, but at press time he had not responded.
The Divine Mission purchase is a small but revealing fraction of the approximately $20 million in redevelopment spending that Commissioner Teele has orchestrated since taking over as CRA chairman in 1997. A CRA audit due out this week was expected to call about $12 million of that amount into question. Under Florida law a CRA is a way for municipalities to use revenue to revitalize economically depressed urban zones. Miami's CRA dates back to 1981; it now has about seven million dollars to spend in the Overtown area. The CRA's governing board, which consists of Miami's five city commissioners, approves how the money is spent. As chairman, Teele has controlled the agenda and spending with little resistance until recently.
Over two decades of CRA history, the Church of Divine Mission persevered in various stages of dilapidation, like many a ghetto refuge for the destitute. In 2003, under CRA ownership, it is in worse condition than ever. On a recent morning Leo Casino leads a reporter through a large opening someone cut in a new chainlink fence the CRA installed to secure the lot. The plywood intended to block entry via the windows and doors are loose. Casino knocks on the loosened board at the entrance of one ground-floor apartment and peeks in. The slumbering homeless couple inside graciously allows the visitors to enter. The floor is strewn with leaflets, textbooks, and trash a foot deep. Among the debris are copies of King's self-published 1997 pamphlet Black-ology, one of whose various subtitles is: "Human Insanity, Everybody Wants to be White and Nobody is." Casino leans down and picks up a battered tome. "A Bible," he notes, and places it on the sill of one of the boarded-up windows.
Back outside, a thin homeless man carries a plastic milk crate stuffed with more papers and flyers. Casino sifts through the crate, discarding items into a grocery cart. But one typewritten page catches his eye: "Re: Church of the Church of Devine [sic] Mission. Friday, December 1, 2000. Meeting among Martin Siskind, Charles King [Siskind's Advocacy Foundation accountant], and Muriel King. Setting: a restaurant." They discussed changing the articles of incorporation to allow themselves to be "paid for services rendered."
Few would have grasped the meaning of the minutes on this crumpled page. But for Casino they are further proof of what he had known all along: Siskind and Muriel had plotted to steal the Church of the Divine Mission by taking over its board of directors.
Unfortunately church founder Clennon King, who had final say over his corporate officers, is no longer around to rectify the situation. "His Divine Darkness," as he called himself, met the Holy Ghost in February 2000 at age 79, after a rich life of bizarre yet earthly confrontations in the struggle for civil rights. Among his first documented exploits was his attempted enrollment at the University of Mississippi in 1958, when Ol' Miss still did not admit blacks. State authorities responded with one of the most fabled Catch-22s of the civil rights struggle, claiming that only a crazy black man would try that. They enrolled him instead in a mental hospital for two weeks. In 1960 King ran for president of the United States on the Afro-American Unity Liberation Party ticket. He tried for governor of Georgia in 1970. But his most famous maneuver was his 1976 attempt to become a deacon at Jimmy Carter's Baptist church just before election day. The church leaders rebuffed King, citing a policy that barred blacks and civil rights activists, and the ensuing media scandal forced Carter to quit the church.
His arrival in Overtown was the product of a disastrous effort to run simultaneously for several local political offices in Georgia. According to a 1982 Newsweekarticle, King made "a decidedly illegal campaign promise: that he would give $100 to anyone who voted for him. When he was found guilty of election violations, the judge offered him twelve months' probation, but King insisted on going to jail. He apparently had a quick change of heart, however, because he skipped to Miami -- where he filed for a Congressional seat. His bid ended when his check for the $3000 qualifying fee bounced." King acquired the Divine Mission apartment building in Overtown in 1981.